The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
November 22, 2005

Kenneth Minogue asks, how can serious critics take such tosh seriously? The Constant Gardener - Fernando Meirelles

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

The Constant Gardener
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
certificate 15, 2005

After seeing The Constant Gardener Kenneth Minogue asks, how can serious critics take such tosh seriously?

The Constant Gardener from a John Le Carre novel and directed by the newly fashionable Brazilian Fernando Meirelles has won golden opinions from all but one of the broadsheets. Praised as a film with a serious point to make, it was characterised by Time Out as "a sweeping, stylish and relevant thriller". The only interesting question it raises is why such complete tosh should have unhinged the wits of otherwise sensible critics.

Let's get the thriller bit out of the way first. Our hero is a quiet rather mediocre diplomat called Justin Quayle who does his job and cultivates his garden. Voltaire thought this was a pretty good way of getting through your life, but not Le Carre. The reason is that Justin has met and married a dim but sexy left wing activist whose mind consists almost entirely of the slogans people carry about on protest marches.

With Justin posted to Kenya, her fantasies turn into the film's reality: a large pharmaceutical company is using Africans to test a drug that is as likely to kill as to cure. Justin's wife and her Kenyan doctor friend are murdered, and Justin jolted out of his gardening mode because he feels he must get to the bottom of the plot. Thugs in the service of the company beat him up, and leave ludicrous notices telling him to desist, and there is thudding background noise and edgy moments with motor bikes until our hero decides to join his beloved in death by fatally setting himself up in such a way that the plot is revealed. The sinister upper class public school villain (for it is he) is revealed for the murderous manipulator he actually is.

In short just about every cliché in the book, as Churchill once said, except "God is love".

The plot has the well-tried agitprop formula in which a benevolent non-political character gets radicalised by reality. To give us an extra thrill, the murdered martyrs are not just killed. The wife is also raped, and her doctor friend mutilated and crucified. One redeeming feature is the sweep of the scenes of Kenyan slum life, along with an implausible travelogue on the Darfur situation in the Sudan, in which horsemen sweep in from the desert to attack an African community. Another such feature is the moral centre of the film. "We can't save this girl - there are thousands of them", remarks the pilot of the plane which is getting our hero out of the desert away from the mounted raiders, and our hero, inspired by his wife's example, says: "But this is one we can help".

As a thriller, then, the film is amateurish stuff by modern standards, and not helped by a director who every few moments wants to remind us of his creativity. The real interest of the film lies in what it has to reveal about the left-wing view of pharmaceutical companies as sinister capitalist conspiracies. The idea that an international company is going to rush a dodgy drug into production in order to make a fast billion is a nonsense, not because capitalists are above such ruthlessness, but because the ensuing loss of reputation and assault by litigation would make it self-destructive. Nor are such companies above using people in the Third World experimentally, for they have many problems with testing. Animal rights fanatics are a constant problem; on the other hand, those suffering from bad diseases may well find it rational to take their chance with a newly discovered drug. The process need not be underhand.

The basic point is that Western civilisation has got itself into a situation where we are all whimperingly dependent on the march of modern medicine. The religious support of fortitude given by a providential understanding of what happens to us has gone, and the old Roman recourse to Stoicism as a philosophy can be found in Shakespeare but not much since. Spinoza might understand freedom as the embrace of necessity, but it is hardly a popular option, and our civilisation has nothing left to sustain it except biochemical technology. For magic bullets, we are dependent on a stream of new discoveries, and the pills can only be made by a few pharmaceutical companies.

The fact that there are so few of them is highly significant. It seems to be incredibly difficult to discover miracle cures. It is also very expensive. If socialists complain that life-saving drugs are hideously expensive in their early stages, they have the option of setting up their own labs in order (as the dimmest of all socialist slogans goes) to put people before profits. The problem is that hardly anyone can do it. In the twentieth century, vast and powerful regimes in Russia and China claimed to put people before profits, and no great medical advances resulted. Somehow, the problem is that the only set of people who can pull off the trick are the supposedly profit-crazed capitalists in Europe and America.

For socialists, of course, human need is a moral imperative. That millions of people will die soon without retrovirals entails that such things must be given to them. Nothing else is relevant! This is also the view taken these days throughout the less successful bits of the Third Word, where the message has spread that something called "the international community" has the power, and the moral responsibility, to respond to their problems by turning up with helicopters and hypodermics. What we have on our hands is a contemporary version of the cargo cult.

This is the position from which The Constant Gardener takes off, and like all left wing thinking, it moves from A to Z without considering the intervening conditions without which things will not happen. The creation of successful drugs is not a simple matter of getting scientists to work and produce the goods. It has economic (or as Marx would have said) "material" conditions. It requires not only brilliance, a scientific and technological tradition, a certain serious dedication to truth but also lots of money and incentives. None of these things grows on trees, and they are indeed so difficult that even in the West, corruptions of the discovery and testing process take place, and may indeed be increasing.

The wider significance of pharmaceutical paranoia is that it illustrates the disorientation of the socialist mind since it became clear some decades ago that communism was the very opposite of a new civilisation. The first fruit of this disorientation has been the alliance between the left and Islam, a religion almost at the opposite pole from what the left believes. This is the Galloway Syndrome. This relatively new concentration upon pharmaceutical research as an evil force in the world is one more collapse of the left wing grip on reality.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

what a marvellous thought! modern cargo cults! and it is so true. i wonder if modern, global economies of scale so cut people off from a clear understanding of economic production that entertaining these strange socialist notions is easier than before, when we grew vegetables and sold them, or worked in a small shop or a small factory? now that most of us have no idea how we fit into the process of suppying our fellow man with needed goods and services, we fall prey to all sorts of idiocy. but cargo cults! i shall never see mr galloway again without imagining him with a bone in his nose.

Posted by: s masty at November 24, 2005 07:41 AM

Minogue missed a vital point. The corporate giants of today, like Western govnts, surround themselves with secrecy, lies, propaganda, threats, bullying, mis-information. Far from welcoming open, free markets, they do their best to frustrate market forces, attempting to monopolise wherever possible.
That "big pharma" tested drugs on Africans was hardly a revelation.
The simpering collusion of the GB government apparatus, the sinister forces at work to make sure us plebs are kept blissfully ignorent, these have always been Le Carre territory and thus the point of the film.
Power corruption lies.

Posted by: Harlan at November 25, 2005 12:07 AM

Constant Gardener is a beautiful film that captivated and moved me. However, I don't take the political ramifications too seriously: corporate political collusion has existed for too long to be shocked, and given the relative strengths of the parties depicted, why would such a conspiracy be necessary?

Le Carre has continually touched on the historical significance of the politics of the day: Britain's position in the Cold War, terrorism, the rise of the Russian Mafia, and most pertinantly at the moment: America's posture post 9/11.

Le Carre makes me think about his chosen themes - even more so with Absolute Friends than with Constant Gardener. Because he is such an insightful portraitist, I am compelled to ponder their deeper implications, even if I don't always agree with them. I find him an engaging, original thinker who is difficult to pigeonhole.

Posted by: Derriey at November 30, 2005 08:38 PM

Oh dear! I always envy the Roman qualities KM advertises. Like the elderly half of the people I know, I am "whimperingly dependent" on the pharmaceutical industry. (If it was allowed to produce cannabis, I'd whimper less.) The 80-plus-year olds amongst us seem the most dependent and the least whimpery, and I hope to emulate them when my turn comes.

But enough about me (as I'm always saying).

KM seems to think the African is inclined to think the Westerner is obliged to help him. I certainly (if weakly) feel more or less that obligation. Surely, the interest and moral challenge in the pharmaceutical issue is indeed how to let poor people pay (at most) the marginal cost of each treatment, whilst somehow ensuring that the better-off carry the fixed costs (of research, say). The merit of patents is that, oddly, they provide the basis of just that trick. my addresses this stuff.

People interested in Africa and do-gooders may like to note Beyond Borders (2003), a concoction which was mostly daft, but with the odd telling thought too. (Angelina Jolie, Clive Owen and Linus Roache all figure.)

Posted by: Richard D North at February 17, 2006 01:28 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement